Q&A: So ... you want to be a relief doctor?

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Answers to questions about what it takes to become a locum tenens veterinarian.

I'm just getting started in relief work, and I want to make it a career. Should I send an introductory letter to area clinics and hospitals? What should the letter include?

What a relief: Dr. Brenda Santana spent a year as a relief veterinarian in Florida. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Brenda Santana)

It's a good idea to mail letters to local hospitals introducing yourself as the new relief veterinarian in town. You can also write to local veterinary associations (address your letter to the president) and ask them to include an announcement in their newsletters and on bulletin boards in places where their members meet regularly. The association may charge a fee to do this. If so, decide whether the potential for clients is worth the price.

Revise your letter every six months and make changes as needed. Then send the revised version to potential clients who didn't respond to previous mailings.

Here's what a letter should include:

Contact information. Mailing address, e-mail address, phone numbers, and fax number.

Experience. Include your years of experience (I recommend you don't start relief work without at least two years), whether it was in small, large, or mixed animal practices. Also list any special interests—for example, behavior problems or ultrasound imaging.

Strengths. Mention one or two specific skills—for example, strong communication skills and extensive experience with ruptured cruciate ligament surgery.

Species interests. Mention animals you're willing to work on in addition to dogs and cats, but be specific and honest. For example: "I've performed basic work on avian species, such as wing clipping, and I've counseled bird owners on husbandry issues. I will be glad to provide these services to your clients."

Nonclinical skills. Emphasize relevant skills that might help the practice. If you know sign language and practice in a city with lots of educational opportunities for hearing-impaired people, it's likely that some of them take their pets to your client's hospital. You'll provide superior customer service to these pet owners and make the hospital look good.

Availability. Are you willing to work half-days or Saturdays? What about overnight emergency shifts? A "yes" answer makes you more attractive to a practice. If you're not sure you want to work odd shifts, just tell potential clients you're willing to consider a variety of schedules. This still shows that you're flexible and easy to work with.

An offer to meet. End your letter with an invitation to meet in person at a mutually convenient time and location. A hospital owner or manager may not have a specific assignment for you, but if you meet, he or she can get to know you, and you'll have an opportunity to sell your services. The fact that the practice doesn't need you right away may even work in your favor—you can size each other up without the pressure of making an instant decision. And don't worry if you don't get many takers on your offer to meet. Your prospective clients—as you may know from past in-clinic experience—don't have much time to talk about anything other than their immediate needs. In my relief career, only two hospital owners asked to meet in person before hiring me. But both of them used my services a few months later.

For a sample introductory letter, look at Related Links below.

Is there anything I should leave out of my letter?

The following are not appropriate points to include in your introductory letter:

Your fees. Your introductory letter isn't the place to broach payment issues. You'll talk fees with the practice owner when she—or one of her associates—is going on vacation or maternity leave and calls you.

Skills or strengths you don't want to use. If you've worked with a particular species but don't really enjoy or feel comfortable with it, don't bring it up.

Excessive detail. This includes a list of every single kind of surgery you've performed or every endocrine disorder you've diagnosed. Show potential clients that you're the best relief veterinarian they could choose—in one page.

Negative statements. Don't speak poorly of other relief veterinarians or other clinics in the area. This is actually true all the time, not just in your letter.

Your resumé. This is a judgment call, but I didn't send a resumé with my letter. Instead I handed it over when I met potential clients in person, usually when interviewing for assignments. That way I could answer questions in person. However, if you feel more comfortable writing than talking, a different system may work better for you.

How do I set my fees competitively? At my last job, I was paid by the hour and received a quarterly bonus based on my production.

Every relief veterinarian's fees are different because his or her circumstances, experience, and location are different. That said, here's a formula I used while I was a relief doctor:

A. Add up the money you earned last year, including your base hourly pay and all your bonuses. Check your W-2 form and personal records to get these numbers.

B. Add up the total hours you worked last year.

C. Divide A by B. This is an estimate of how much you made per hour last year.

D. Multiply C by 30 percent. Add that to C.

E. Multiply C by 40 percent. Add that to C. (This additional 30 percent to 40 percent helps cover the self-employment taxes you didn't have to pay as an employee. This percentage may need to be higher in some high-tax states.)

F. The range between D and E is your potential hourly fee as a relief veterinarian. Give clients one number in this range—preferably toward the high end.

Here's an example:

A. 2007 total pay = $80,000

B. Hours worked in 2007 = 2,000

C. $80,000 ÷ 2,000 = $40

D. $40 × 0.3 = $12. And $12 + $40 = $52

E. $40 × 0.4 = $16. And $16 + $40 = $56

F. Possible hourly fee = $52 to $56. Your hourly fee: $55.

Think of these initial calculations as a guideline. This method worked for me, but keep track of your own profitability, personal fulfillment, and calculations as needed.

Also, consider the economic situation in your area, travel expenses, the number of veterinarian clients you'll have, local pet owners' expectations of their veterinarians, what other area relief veterinarians charge, and so on. Lower your fees only if the market doesn't support the higher end of your range. Don't accept anything less than your lowest figure no matter how long the assignment or how much a client asks for a break. Undervaluing your services sets you up for frustration, low profitability, and professional dissatisfaction.

Can I contact relief veterinarians for advice?

Yes. Get in touch with veterinarians in your area or other areas with similar demographics. Most will be glad to answer your questions. For example, you could ask:

  • How many veterinarian clients do you have?

  • How many days a week do you work?

  • How long have you been doing relief work in the area?

  • How do you advertise your services?

If a relief veterinarian says he or she works an average of three days a week, ask whether this is by choice. Maybe this doctor has another career, a time-intensive hobby, or family responsibilities. Maybe there aren't enough veterinary hospitals in the area. Maybe the veterinarian just hasn't advertised enough.

Some area relief veterinarians may be willing to tell you their fees so that you don't go too low and end up hurting their business. (You'll also be hurting yourself if you do this.) Even if they don't, they'll still often share their tips and experiences with you.

Relief work is rewarding, both personally and financially. Congratulations on your choice! Be confident and approach your new career with a positive attitude, and you'll go far.

Dr. Brenda Santana

Dr. Brenda Santana was a relief veterinarian in southern Florida from 1999 to 2000. She now works as an associate at East Ridge Animal Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

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